A Balinese word for medicinal healing, the tranquil, beautiful, arty and charming Ubud does just that – it heals stirred, jaded souls with its freshness and simplicity, its cool mountain air wafting blossom scents. About an hour’s drive away from Bali International Airport, Ubud takes you away from the hot crowded beaches and instant touristy attractions. Fourteen little villages make up Ubud, full of green rice paddies, brooks and rivers, charming cafes and shops and a strong awareness of the arts. There are any number of lovely places to stay at here – from family run guesthouses among rice fields, luxury hotels to mid-range resorts. Renting a cycle/car makes coming into town from the outlying easy, if you wish to stay far from it all.
Jalan Raya Ubud is the main street, bustling and bursting with life. Stores here sell high-fashion and handicrafts, all of local make, and are juxtaposed with classy cafes and art galleries. Local scenes are painted in typical colourful style, and are much sought-after keepsakes, prices ranging from cheap to very expensive. “I’m also a painter,” my driver says proudly, proving the point that local art sells big here. A walk down this road is real fun – shopping is fun too, and bargaining is a must at the smaller shops. Wood carvings, masks, very expensive stone-set jewellery, natural fibre clothes, old books, local organic fruit jams and syrups.
Three bags full later, I step into Café Mumbul for a fine dinner of local and Western dishes and scrumptious cheesecake. The setting is so lovely – an airy sala, the high-pitched roof sloping like a pavilion with open sides. Lovely, dusky women in sarong and kebaya rush to serve the diners, and I relax and watch Jln Raya Ubud go its busy way. Murni’s is great too, and Café Wayan has a splendid garden to see first, before eating. Good Indian food is also available here. As you drive into Ubud, there’s Warung, famed for its owner-cooked dishes. Warung Little India at JLN Hanoman, is good too and offers a satisfying thali. Café des artistes is Belgian-owned and serves local and Western dishes and homemade desserts, along with free Wi-Fi.
A dance performance at night is a big attraction here, and the best place to catch it is the palace on Jln Raya Ubud, seated at the Café Lotus, across a lotus pond. Here also is a bemo stand, the local taxi.You can continue wandering into Jln Monkey Forest, and end up in the forest with the monkeys, quite an attraction. Or else, the classy boutiques and cafes can occupy you for long. If nothing, you must pick up local jams and a small cane punnet of Bali salt, as souvenir.
Ubud and Sukawati markets supply cheap goods – local textiles, I Love Bali bags and tees, cane baskets, woodwork and local snacks. Sukawati also provides a visual spectacle of young girls and women going to the temple on certain occasions, all dressed up, seemingly carrying out a vow. Traffic is held up till the entire procession is past, with men preceding playing local musical instruments. You are not even allowed to cross the road till it’s all over. Going to the temple is a big outing here, and Tirtha Empul, a few kilometres away, is an ancient, popular temple. Families dress up in traditional clothes and plan to stay at least half a day there. Home made food in woven baskets is carried on the head by the lady for offering at the temple and for a hearty family meal — food is big in Bali. A purifying bath at the temple’s hot springs is also a draw for devotees.
Drives along scenic hilly villages towards Kintamani, the volcano, are enjoyable, with stops at places like Tegallalang and Campuan to view the scenery. At once, you are thronged by women selling souvenirs – printed tees, sarongs, masks, wooden bangles with ‘Bali’ painted on it and colourful hair clips. Fresh fruits and vegetables from farms off the road are good buys. The organic farm visit gives exquisite spices and the famous Luwak coffee. Planned visits to nearby Mas and Gianyar opens up the world of wood carving and weaving, particularly if you want to buy in bulk. It’s all so efficient – buy, pack and take, or have it shipped to you. Stone carvings too – from Buddhas and Indian gods to fountains and lanterns. Visits to art galleries and museums delight the art lover.
The Blanco museum, original home of the quixotic Spanish artist Antonio Blanco attracts droves of visitors, and also has droves of exotic birds flying in its gardens. With spas dotting the setting in Ubud, healing and relaxation are bywords here, making the holiday perfect. Bali Healing at Jln Hanoman has a good reputation, and is somewhat expensive. The beauty about Ubud is that everyone is wreathed in smiles here, from dawn to night – if one gets up by 6 am, you see cheerful men gathering frangipani for decorating their homes or hotels. ‘Good morning,’ they wish cheerily, strangers all, making you feel welcome. Food is served with a willingness to please, and at the upmarket sala café all races receive the same service, with a smile. Ubud is a great haven, happy and lovely, a holiday quite unlike most.
By Kirat Sodhi
Kirat Sodhi loves to travel, read and is a theatre enthusiast. You can contact her on twitter @KiratSodhi.